The words on this church sign say:”OBAMA HAS RELEASED THE HOMO DEMONS
ON THE BLACK MAN, LOOK OUT BLACK
WOMAN, A WHITE HOMO
MAY TAKE YOUR MAN”
This is the kind of hate that we have exported to fuel existing homophobia in other parts of the world.
Recently, a young person in our shelter was beaten to the point of broken bones. Not in Uganda, but here in liberal NYC. Safe spaces like Trinity Place Shelter (https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=trinityplaceshelter&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8) are more needed than ever as we labor and pray for a world that is safe for everyone, everywhere. We can celebrate the spring of marriage equality breaking out in more and more places, but we need to be just as vocal and organized around the ongoing winter of hardened hearts before the isms of our age, what Martin Luther King referred to as “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” monsters that also continue to gobble up poor, queer youth – and some who are not so poor as well. “If I were to remain silent, I’d be guilty of complicity.”
It’s becoming popular in some places to distribute ashes in public places such as train stations. Bragging about Ash Wednesday is most unseemly, but here I go. I’m proud that a small church in the South Bronx was ahead of the curve on this…by thirty years. This was not due to any cutting-edge pastoral vision, but thanks to Carmelo at the bodega. We had two scheduled services for Ash Wednesday, one in English and one in Spanish, until the year we had the unscheduled one. Carmelo, who owned the corner store by the church, wanted me to bring him some ashes since he couldn’t leave the store. I figured that taking ashes to the storebound fit into the same category as taking Communion to the homebound. When I came down the street with the bowl of ashes, I passed the group of men and women who hung out in front of the bodega in order to have easy access to the beer sold inside. We always exchanged greetings. I invariably invited them to church, and invariably they didn’t come. But on this particular day when they saw me approach with the ashes, as if on cue, they all knelt down on the sidewalk, obedient to some internal rubric. They begged me for ashes, and then some of them got up and went to find their friends. In the end, there was a congregation of about twenty-five kneeling by the bodega.
On Ash Wednesday the following year, we decided to be intentional about taking the service to the street. There was regular worship in the sanctuary, but in the afternoon we went outside. More than a hundred people came asking to be blessed and marked with the ashes. They asked for prayers for strength in recovery from addiction, prayers related to health and relationship struggles. We weren’t more than twenty feet from the front doors of the church, and yet I knew that very few of those people would ever have walked through the church doors to request the same prayers and blessing. Why not? They felt ashamed to enter the church. They were not homebound or storebound, but shamebound and afraid of crossing the border, afraid of being met with judgment and rejection. They didn’t realize how identical their condition was to that of the members who would later gather to worship inside the doors, many also HIV-positive, in various stages of addiction recovery, abused, homeless, poor–like all of us, for as Luther put it, we are all beggars. But there was no way for those outside to know this if those inside were not willing to come out and worship on the street, becoming by their very bodily presence a door into the welcoming body of Christ. People like the Rev. Andrena Ingram, who was a lay minister that day and is now marking ashes on her Philadelphia community as their pastor. The idea of ashes in the street seems to be catching on and it’s about time!
Companion to Strangers (Building bonds in sorrow and love)
We read about the demise of church. Numbers are down. Church buildings are disintegrating or in closure. Metaphors are grim. The church as ship carrying us through the stormy seas has become the church as Titanic. Of course, we are people of resurrection. New forms are emerging like green shoots from dead stumps, and others shimmer on a horizon I find myself squinting at and unable to see clearly. In the meantime, I follow the shape of the church before my eyes. What I see does not discourage me in the least.
A year ago I received a Facebook message from a colleague on the other side of the country. He wrote from Los Angeles to tell me about a young woman he knew who was living in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons. The family had not yet connected to an East Coast church community but had reached out to my colleague from the shadowlands of trauma. Although they lived in Brooklyn, this husband and wife were spending almost all their time in the pediatric intensive care unit of a Manhattan hospital where their 15-month-old son was dying.
I was in another hospital bed when the message came. I had just emerged from surgery with a new hip. It would take a few weeks before I was able to venture out, but my seminary intern was fit for the task even if she would have described herself as limping toward that intensive care unit, halting and unsteady before the door. Her ministry was all the better for that.
Pastorally, she limped and stumbled with them on that ground where no one can go with steady feet. She took the time needed—waiting, praying, weeping, listening, sitting. She was young and inexperienced for the task, but really, how does experience make such a journey easier? We often say that young people—and children—are the future of the church as if their powerful ministry is not happening here and now.
She helped Charlie, the five-year-old big brother, say good-bye. She stayed beside his parents as they hung on the edge of impossible decisions. I was steady enough to attend the funeral. There was Charlie, serious, sad, and clinging to his mother. His baby brother was there too, laughing from the huge photos prepared by coworkers in his father’s design company, who did what they knew how to do.
My intern preached, and I led prayers around a small white coffin that was tenderly covered with favorite stuffed animals. Afterward I was ready to help the family find a church home closer to where they lived, but they stayed with us. We shared a bond, tethered by sorrow and love from one side of the country, one side of the river, to another. (to read the rest go to: http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-02/companion-strangers)